Mary Russell | Spatial Relations

Patchwork Geometry, oil, 30 x 30
Patchwork Geometry, oil, 30 x 30


By Norman Kolpas

At first glance, Mary Russell’s piece titled the new red vase looks like a traditional still-life painting. Its title subject, rendered in luscious oils, radiates warm beauty as natural light from above richly models its graceful form. The light reflects on the textured wall behind the vase and casts deep shadows below. Here’s a work, you would be well justified to think, that displays a classic sureness in the artist’s handling of composition and painterly technique.
Then you begin to notice that “traditional” might not actually be the best term to describe the painting. The vase is sharing the composition with an ordinary cardboard box. The mottled-green background on which the vase sits turns out to be a sheet of packing paper, and there is a scattering of Styrofoam peanuts. What might have first registered to your eye as a green ribbon—the sort of grace note you’ve no doubt seen in still-life paintings from ages past—is, in fact, a strip of duct tape, snipped by a nearby pair of plastic-handled scissors.
Persimmons & Aqua Vessel, oil, 24 x 24
Persimmons & Aqua Vessel, oil, 24 x 24
One more surprise starts to register: Although the objects all sit on a shared surface, as most still lifes do, the surface in question here seems to float in space, with nothing to support it. Right before your eyes, Russell’s painting comes delightfully unmoored from tradition. You sense stealthy movement, as if the very air and light around the objects are stirring, breathing a heightened sense of reality and life into the images. “Still life doesn’t have to be still,” the artist observes with a gentle chuckle. “The challenge of painting the space around them has become more important to me than painting the objects themselves.”
An interpretation verging on the metaphysical could run the risk of sounding too high-minded, especially in light of the fact that Russell is so down-to-earth, good-humored, and unpretentious about what she does. The subjects of her paintings often are run-of-the-mill objects unburdened by qualities that even dare to suggest metaphor, deep meaning, or philosophical ponderings. Russell paints with an unbridled joy and pure-hearted dedication that seems little removed from the pleasure she first found in art during her Tulsa childhood in the 1950s.
“I can remember lying on the floor with my Crayola box. Each year, I’d wait for the new color to come out,” says Russell. “Of course, I was so young back then I was probably eating some of the crayons.”

Indeed, art was a consuming passion for Russell from a young age…

Featured in June 2007

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